When it comes to the airlines with the best customer service, the bar is low. Passengers just want an airline that’s safe, on time, and doesn’t lose your luggage. But there’s only one place to find that information for domestic airlines: in the venerable Airline Quality Rating (AQR).
Although that annual rating doesn’t come out until next April, one of the AQR researchers has agreed to share a list of airlines with the best customer service exclusively with me.
Three air carriers lead the 2020 flock, and you probably already know who they are. But you might not know why they’re at the top of the list, or how to make the most of your flying experience in the coming year.
How they determined the airlines with the best customer service for 2020
The AQR, the most comprehensive study of performance and quality of the largest airlines in the United States, is based on data reported to the Department of Transportation. It uses the following data:
- Mishandled baggage
- Consumer complaints
- On-time performance
- Involuntary denied boardings
The AQR can’t measure one key metric: customer service. However, it conducts a separate survey of customer sentiment, which runs until the end of the year. That poll gauges how airline passengers feel about their overall airline experience, a contrast to the data-driven approach of the AQR.
Brent Bowen, the AQR’s co-author and professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says the best airlines to fly in 2020 are focused on performance. In fact, the top airlines use AQR scores to set next year’s operational goals.
“They’re very focused on the key metrics in the AQR,” he says.
So what are the airlines with the best customer service?
Here are the airlines with the best customer service in 2020, according to Airline Quality Rating researcher Brent Bowen:
1. Delta Air Lines
Delta is the number-one airline for 2020, thanks to strong numbers and a little luck. “Fortunately, Delta isn’t affected by the 737 Max problem,” says Bowen. “They’ve tried to improve in each of the AQR categories.” To get to the top, Delta borrowed a tactic first used by Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines. They based their performance goals on AQR criteria.
Helping Delta: It doesn’t fly the 737 Max, the Boeing aircraft that’s been grounded since March after two fatal crashes. Here’s an example of Delta’s superior performance: From January to September, it denied boarding to only four passengers, making it the top-ranked of the major air carriers.
2. JetBlue Airways
This airline has also kept its eye on the key AQR metrics, says Bowen. Plus, they’re a customer favorite, according to comments Bowen’s team has received through its companion survey. “The fact that you don’t have to fly a commuter airline to connect to JetBlue is helping,” he adds. JetBlue isn’t improving, though, “just maintaining its position,” adds Bowen.
He’s also concerned by news that JetBlue has added a “basic” fare that doesn’t include checked luggage and seat assignments. That could put a drag on its customer-service reputation in 2020. It wouldn’t surprise Bowen if JetBlue slipped a few places next year. For the first half of 2019, JetBlue received only 169 consumer complaints, significantly less than the three legacy airlines plus Southwest.
3. Southwest Airlines
Despite the 737 Max problems, Southwest remains a customer favorite. Also helping the airline: It doesn’t use a feeder network of regional carriers, which can affect the carrier’s overall performance.
But Bowen says Southwest has some rough air ahead. The Federal Aviation Administration is threatening to remove more than two dozen aircraft because of maintenance issues. “They may have to go back and inspect the planes,” says Bowen. “But if Southwest can overcome these issues, they’ll be able to maintain their ranking. I think they’ll be neck-and-neck with JetBlue in 2020.”
4. Alaska Airlines
Alaska, another passenger favorite, is still being impacted by their acquisition of Virgin America, which was completed in 2018. “Mergers always cause a problem,” says Bowen. In fact, you can go back to all of the other airline mergers and see a drop in performance immediately after the transaction.
But Alaska has a few things going for it. “Horizon Air, Alaska’s subsidiary, is one of the best and most reliable feeder networks,” says Bowen. And Virgin America, the airline it acquired, had a terrific customer service reputation. So there’s some potential for a significant rebound in 2020.
5. United Airlines
“United is performing better,” says Bowen. “There’s nothing to indicate they’re improving in any category. But there’s no evidence that they’re declining. They’re status quo, from the passenger experience perspective.” United has a number of operational challenges, including a less-than-reliable feeder network and a reputation for customer-unfriendly policies.
Its mishandled luggage numbers illustrate these challenges. For the first six months of 2019, United lost an eye-popping 7.17 bags per 1,000 passengers, second only to American Airlines. That’s right, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Airlines did better.
6. Spirit Airlines
The race for the bottom three airlines will be the most closely-watched, according to Bowen. “It’s going to be a very competitive race,” says Bowen. Last year, Spirit pulled off an upset when it overtook American Airlines in the AQR. This year, Spirit s running number one in baggage handling. “If you can run number one in any category, you won’t be at the bottom of the list,” says Bowen. Spirit, despite its reputation as a no-frills, “ultra” low-cost airline (read: everything is extra) has started to separate itself from the pack.
7. American Airlines
Beset by a pilot shortage, employee apathy and a feeder network that consistently underperforms, American just can’t catch a break. And it won’t get one in 2020, Bowen predicts. What’s more, the airline has the cursed 737 Max in its fleet. What else could possibly go wrong?
8. Frontier Airlines
Someone has to be last. “We get more complaints about Frontier than any other airline,” says Bowen. The airline underperforms in almost every category. But what’s really weighing it down in the AQR is flight delays and an almost total lack of customer service. All is not lost, though. Either American or Spirit could swoop in next year to reclaim the bottom spot. “You just never know,” says Bowen.
Tips for finding airlines with the best customer service
Beyond avoiding the worst airlines next year, Bowen’s strategies for finding airlines with the best customer service next year include:
Consider paying more to fly on a better-performing airline. Remember, if you fly a higher-ranked airline, you’re statistically more likely to have a positive experience.
Avoid a regional airline. Feeder airlines such as Skywest and Mesa that go to a regional hub are performance disasters waiting to happen, says Bowen. We’re talking delays, missed connections, lost luggage. Avoid the regional airline and you’ll avoid the problem.
Be aware of what’s included in your fare purchase. All of the legacy airlines now have “basic” economy-class fares that make you pay extra for everything. “Make sure you know what’s included — and not included — in your ticket price,” advises Bowen.
Never, ever check a bag. That’s especially true if you fly on a regional airline. But airlines, in general, lose luggage. Carrying your bag instead of checking it will eliminate that possibility.
To recap: For a civil, if not on-time, flight experience, fly on Delta, JetBlue or Southwest. Avoid regional airlines and don’t check baggage.
And as always, when it comes to airlines with the best customer service, don’t expect too much. After all, America’s air carriers don’t become profitable through better customer service. They do it through relentless cost-cutting. And in the competition for better rankings, the airline that cuts the least wins.